Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S. Middle East policy

Hillary’s Role in Obama’s Mideast Disasters

The Washington Post trod over some familiar territory this past weekend with a 7,000-word retrospective on the Obama administration’s Middle East peace process misadventures. The account strives to put President Obama in a favorable light. But even the most sympathetic narrative of this period must come to grips with the president’s blundering, most of which was rooted in his determination to distance the United States from Israel in a vain attempt to score points with the Arab world. For the first three years of his presidency, Washington was focused on pressuring Israel, a policy that alienated the Jewish state but did nothing to nudge the Palestinians to make peace.

The Post’s lengthy rehashing of the president’s Middle East follies is part of the paper’s series of pieces evaluating the history of the last four years. It is worthwhile for the way it places in perspective the administration’s election-year Jewish charm offensive that has walked back some of the previous stands.  It also makes clear that while President Obama deserves the lion’s share of the blame for the way he made a bad situation worse, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also ought to be held accountable for her role in the ongoing debacle. That’s a not unimportant point considering that Clinton is in Israel this week as part of an attempt on Obama’s part to smooth over relations.

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The Washington Post trod over some familiar territory this past weekend with a 7,000-word retrospective on the Obama administration’s Middle East peace process misadventures. The account strives to put President Obama in a favorable light. But even the most sympathetic narrative of this period must come to grips with the president’s blundering, most of which was rooted in his determination to distance the United States from Israel in a vain attempt to score points with the Arab world. For the first three years of his presidency, Washington was focused on pressuring Israel, a policy that alienated the Jewish state but did nothing to nudge the Palestinians to make peace.

The Post’s lengthy rehashing of the president’s Middle East follies is part of the paper’s series of pieces evaluating the history of the last four years. It is worthwhile for the way it places in perspective the administration’s election-year Jewish charm offensive that has walked back some of the previous stands.  It also makes clear that while President Obama deserves the lion’s share of the blame for the way he made a bad situation worse, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also ought to be held accountable for her role in the ongoing debacle. That’s a not unimportant point considering that Clinton is in Israel this week as part of an attempt on Obama’s part to smooth over relations.

Though the president’s surrogates continue to try to portray him as Israel’s best friend ever to sit in the White House, the Post provides a reminder for those who care to remember the truth that he arrived in office determined to put an end to the closeness between Israel and the United States that had developed during the Bush administration.

The Post describes a meeting with American Jewish leaders that took place in the wake of the June 2009 president’s speech to the Muslim world and his snub of Israel during his visit to the Middle East:

“If you want Israel to take risks, then its leaders must know that the United States is right next to them,” Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told the president.

Obama politely but firmly disagreed.

“Look at the past eight years,” he said, referring to the George W. Bush administration’s relationship with Israel. “During those eight years, there was no space between us and Israel, and what did we get from that? When there is no daylight, Israel just sits on the sidelines, and that erodes our credibility with the Arab states.”

Obama not only didn’t understand what had happened under Bush when the U.S. attempted to force the Palestinian Authority to eschew terror and embrace democracy, he knew nothing about the way the Arab world regarded the U.S.-Israel relationship. Rather than interpreting his kicking Israel under the bus as an invitation to compromise and make peace, it merely convinced them they could just sit back and let Obama hammer Israel. Even when Prime Minister Netanyahu acceded to Obama’s demand for a settlement freeze in the West Bank, not only did he receive little thanks from Washington, the Palestinians continued to refuse to negotiate, secure in the belief the president would do the dirty work for them.

The same thing happened in 2011 when Obama ambushed Netanyahu before he arrived in Washington for a visit by giving a speech in which he called for the 1967 lines to be the starting point for future negotiations over borders. Obama had “in a single morning changed decades of U.S. policy on how the negotiations would unfold on the final borders of Israel.” Though the president tilted the diplomatic playing field in their direction, the Palestinians still wouldn’t budge and instead sought a futile end run around U.S. diplomacy at the United Nations.

Just as interesting is the Post’s account of the way Clinton helped turn what should have been dismissed as a minor kerfuffle over the announcement of a new housing start in Jerusalem during a visit by Vice President Biden into a major diplomatic incident. Though Clinton is still viewed by many American Jews as a friend of Israel, her 45-minute lecture of Netanyahu in which she treated the building of homes in 40-year-old Jewish neighborhoods of Israel’s capital as an “insult” to the United States was, in its way, just as significant as Obama’s later speech on the 1967 lines. Rather than moderating the desire of some in the administration to bash Israel, Clinton took a delicate situation and blew it up and in the process established a U.S. position on the status of Jerusalem that went further than any of Obama’s predecessors toward undermining Israel’s hold on its capital.

Though Obama’s Jewish surrogates are beating the bushes this year portraying the president as a stalwart friend of Israel, he began his presidency pursuing policies that won the applause of the left-wing J Street group and shocked the pro-Israel community. In the last several months, those stands have been reversed, leaving J Street isolated as the president now eschews any talk of pressure on Israel or distancing the U.S. from the Jewish state.

Optimists will view this sea change in policy as a result of Obama learning the hard way that the Palestinians are not interested in peace. Less sanguine observers will merely point to the calendar and note that the president’s conversion to more conventional pro-Israel policies coincided with the start of his re-election campaign. Those who believe he will stick to the stances he has taken this year if he is re-elected would do well to read the Post account and ask themselves whether their trust is warranted.

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U.S. Intervention Helps Shape Mideast

This appears to be the heyday of American-educated professors in the Middle East. Mohammed Morsi, an engineering Ph.D. from the University of Southern California, is the new president of Egypt. Mahmoud Jibril, a political science Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh, is the likely new leader of Libya. But there the comparisons end. For while Morsi is an Islamist who is closely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Jibril is a liberal secularist who ran in opposition to the Brotherhood. His coalition’s triumph in Libya’s weekend election shows that there is nothing inevitable about an Islamist takeover in the Arab world’s emerging democracies.

It also shows that American intervention can help to shape the region for the better. Jibril’s credibility comes not only from his affiliation in the populous Warfalla tribe but also from his American background (free of the taint of cooperation with the previous regime) and his role as head of the National Transitional Council which, with Western support, led the fight against Qaddafi. Many in the West fear that any Western support will be the kiss of death for Arab moderates who will be denounced as Western lackeys by their own people. Not in Libya. The very fact that the U.S. and its allies got actively involved allowed them to boost a moderate leader despite Libya’s turbulent politics.

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This appears to be the heyday of American-educated professors in the Middle East. Mohammed Morsi, an engineering Ph.D. from the University of Southern California, is the new president of Egypt. Mahmoud Jibril, a political science Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh, is the likely new leader of Libya. But there the comparisons end. For while Morsi is an Islamist who is closely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Jibril is a liberal secularist who ran in opposition to the Brotherhood. His coalition’s triumph in Libya’s weekend election shows that there is nothing inevitable about an Islamist takeover in the Arab world’s emerging democracies.

It also shows that American intervention can help to shape the region for the better. Jibril’s credibility comes not only from his affiliation in the populous Warfalla tribe but also from his American background (free of the taint of cooperation with the previous regime) and his role as head of the National Transitional Council which, with Western support, led the fight against Qaddafi. Many in the West fear that any Western support will be the kiss of death for Arab moderates who will be denounced as Western lackeys by their own people. Not in Libya. The very fact that the U.S. and its allies got actively involved allowed them to boost a moderate leader despite Libya’s turbulent politics.

There is a lesson here worth keeping in mind with regard to Syria, where numerous factions are jostling for influence after the downfall of Bashar al-Assad. The more actively the U.S. gets involved in toppling the tyrant, the more influence we–as opposed to the Saudis or Qataris–will have in determining Syria’s future. So too in Egypt we have an opportunity to back liberal parties and help them to get better organized so the Egyptian people will not face the same dismal choice between the Brotherhood and the army. This is an opportunity we dare not miss.

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Consequences of a Victory for Assad Will Be Costly for Obama

The Western optimism about the imminent fall of the Assad regime in Syria voiced so frequently throughout much of the last year is starting to quiet down. President Obama was willing to express confidence that the Arab Spring would claim another triumph in Damascus just a few months ago. But the collapse of the United Nations-sponsored plan for an end to the violence in Syria has once again made it clear not only that the world body’s peace efforts are farcical, but that the administration’s Middle East policies are a hopeless muddle.

The main villain in this drama remains Bashar al-Assad, whose forces continue to butcher the Syrian people. But at this point it must be understood that a Western refusal to openly challenge that dictator and his backers in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran has created a foreign policy debacle with consequences that extend beyond the borders of that tortured country. The United States decided that unlike the case in Libya where intervention to topple the Qaddafi government was deemed easy and relatively cost-free, a repeat effort in Syria was a perilous undertaking beyond the capacity of the West to contemplate. It is certainly true that a more aggressive policy toward Assad would have created risks and would not have been without a high cost. But as President Obama may be learning (in those spare moments when not immersed in his re-election campaign aimed at demonizing his domestic opponents), allowing Russia, China and Iran to help thwart world opinion on this issue will undermine U.S. interests and credibility.

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The Western optimism about the imminent fall of the Assad regime in Syria voiced so frequently throughout much of the last year is starting to quiet down. President Obama was willing to express confidence that the Arab Spring would claim another triumph in Damascus just a few months ago. But the collapse of the United Nations-sponsored plan for an end to the violence in Syria has once again made it clear not only that the world body’s peace efforts are farcical, but that the administration’s Middle East policies are a hopeless muddle.

The main villain in this drama remains Bashar al-Assad, whose forces continue to butcher the Syrian people. But at this point it must be understood that a Western refusal to openly challenge that dictator and his backers in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran has created a foreign policy debacle with consequences that extend beyond the borders of that tortured country. The United States decided that unlike the case in Libya where intervention to topple the Qaddafi government was deemed easy and relatively cost-free, a repeat effort in Syria was a perilous undertaking beyond the capacity of the West to contemplate. It is certainly true that a more aggressive policy toward Assad would have created risks and would not have been without a high cost. But as President Obama may be learning (in those spare moments when not immersed in his re-election campaign aimed at demonizing his domestic opponents), allowing Russia, China and Iran to help thwart world opinion on this issue will undermine U.S. interests and credibility.

The president fatally underestimated both Assad’s staying power and his willingness to shed blood to hold onto power. But worse than that, he failed to understand that Western passivity created a perfect opening for Iran, ably backed by Russia and China to create a test case by which they could prove that it was still possible to thwart the will of the United States as well as international opinion.

While President Obama’s major Middle East policy speech last May is best remembered for its attempt to ambush Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on the issue of the 1967 borders, the bulk of the address was a manifesto of America’s intentions to help the Arab Spring create a new sphere of democracy and prosperity. The speech was remarkable for an approach that could rightly be labeled neoconservative in its devotion to the idea that America could help foster democracy in a region where it was (other than in Israel) largely unknown. But the initiative was overshadowed by Obama’s unsuccessful dustup with Israel and ignored by the Arabs. Other than the president’s brief foray in “leading from behind” in Libya, the United States has been a passive observer in the region.

The only aspect of U.S. policy in the region that could be dignified with the term strategy was the president’s decision to warm up relations with Turkey at the very time the Islamist government of that nation was tilting against Israel and making noises about a revival of Ottoman influence. Though Turkey is a questionable ally, it has become something of a surrogate for Western interests in Syria as it challenged Assad. But even there, Obama has made a mess of things, as it is now clear Turkey is no match for Iran’s allies in terms of its ability to influence events.

The unraveling of the UN peace plan promoted by former Secretary General Kofi Annan (who can now add the triumph of Syrian tyranny to his long list of other diplomatic failures) doesn’t just mean it is more than likely Assad will survive this crisis. The other consequences represent a catastrophe for American interests. Iran looks to be able to hold onto a crucial ally in Assad who will be more dependent on it than ever. And Russia and China have demonstrated that the notion of a world in which America is the only superpower has been supplanted by one in which America’s former Cold War adversaries have become forces to be reckoned with. All this also dramatically reduces Obama’s chances of a successful campaign to pressure Iran into giving up its nuclear ambitions.

Though the president feared the cost of intervention in Syria, it is rapidly becoming apparent that the United States will be paying dearly for his temerity in the years to come.

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Washington Helpless as Islamists Play for Keeps in Egypt

How bad is the current political situation in Egypt? So bad, it appears, that the Obama administration actually believes it ought to throw its support behind the Muslim Brotherhood in order to stop an even more radical Islamist from being elected to the presidency of the most populous Arab nation. That’s the predicament Washington faces after the Brotherhood broke its pledge not to field a candidate for Egypt’s presidency. But as much as the surge in popularity of the Salafi candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail may make a tilt toward the Brotherhood seem understandable, the situation illustrates the depths to which the administration’s Middle East cluelessness has sunk.

During the weekend, anonymous State Department officials told the New York Times they were quite happy about the prospect of a Muslim Brotherhood candidate entering the race for the Egyptian presidency. Though the U.S. rightly considered the Brotherhood to be a potent threat to American interests as well as Middle East peace, in light of the strength shown by even more extreme Islamists, President Obama’s diplomatic team now apparently considers it to be an acceptable alternative. But this U.S. tilt toward the Brotherhood is just the latest of a series of inept moves that has destroyed American influence in Egypt.

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How bad is the current political situation in Egypt? So bad, it appears, that the Obama administration actually believes it ought to throw its support behind the Muslim Brotherhood in order to stop an even more radical Islamist from being elected to the presidency of the most populous Arab nation. That’s the predicament Washington faces after the Brotherhood broke its pledge not to field a candidate for Egypt’s presidency. But as much as the surge in popularity of the Salafi candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail may make a tilt toward the Brotherhood seem understandable, the situation illustrates the depths to which the administration’s Middle East cluelessness has sunk.

During the weekend, anonymous State Department officials told the New York Times they were quite happy about the prospect of a Muslim Brotherhood candidate entering the race for the Egyptian presidency. Though the U.S. rightly considered the Brotherhood to be a potent threat to American interests as well as Middle East peace, in light of the strength shown by even more extreme Islamists, President Obama’s diplomatic team now apparently considers it to be an acceptable alternative. But this U.S. tilt toward the Brotherhood is just the latest of a series of inept moves that has destroyed American influence in Egypt.

Should the Brotherhood candidate for president succeed, it would create a dangerous situation in which this Islamist party would control both the executive and the parliament. This would place intolerable pressure on the army — which remains the sole force in the country that could act as a check on the Islamists — to back down and allow the Brotherhood untrammeled power.

Washington seemingly has no problems with this happening as it has bought hook, line and sinker, the Brotherhood’s claims it is now ready to embrace peace with Israel, avoid persecution of Egypt’s Christian minority, and promote a free enterprise model for economic development. As Eric Trager writes for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s website, the Brotherhood’s “détente” with the army command, in which they had promised not to try and run roughshod over secularists or to take over the country, is now in tatters, as their drive for power goes into overdrive. There is also the possibility the Salafis will beat the Brotherhood candidate anyway, in which case the country would drift even farther to the extremes.

Washington’s thinking appears to be that they would prefer an Islamist government along the lines of Turkey — which is what they assume the Brotherhood’s goal is — to one that is modeled after Iran. But either choice would be terrible. An Egypt in which the Brotherhood had a monopoly on power would not be friendly to the United States. And because the administration has discouraged the army from acting to head off the danger, it is difficult to see how any of this will turn out well unless the secular candidate, Amr Moussa, beats both Islamist candidates.

Obama abandoned Hosni Mubarak last year. With our embassy now backing the Brotherhood, secularists and the army must assume the president means to ditch them, too. In the meantime, Washington has failed to promote secular democratic groups and then appeased the military by not putting hold on U.S. aid when Americans were prosecuted for aiding dissidents. In other words, the only thing consistent about U.S. policy toward Egypt in the last year has been its inconsistency.

The result is that Egypt, once a staunch U.S. ally, has now fallen into the grip of competing Islamist parties while Washington foolishly tries to play favorites among a group that has little use for American interests or values. The rise of the Islamists in Cairo strengthens the hand of extremists like Hamas among the Palestinians and reduces the already minimal chances for peace with Israel.

President Obama chose Cairo as the venue for his vaunted attempt at outreach to the Muslim world while slighting Israel. Yet, if there is anything we can conclude from the past year it is that Egyptians and other Muslims who are embracing Islamist parties throughout the Middle East have no interest in Obama’s ideas and no use for the United States. That Cairo will soon be in the hands of competing factions of Islamists is a sobering but fitting epitaph for the administration’s feckless foreign policy.

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